How did “hypocrisy” become the worst accusation leveled against the powerful?
When looking at a recent Daily Show segment that amounted to a whitewash of American assassination policies, I was struck by the focus on “hypocrisy.” To hear America’s most-trusted liberal satirist tell it, President Obama was mostly guilty of the crime of saying one thing and doing another. The focus on hypocrisy elided the fact that the thing in question, which he said he wouldn’t do, was murdering people. From my humble perspective, that seems like a worse sin than duplicity. Once I had “hypocrisy” on my mind, though, I noticed that the accusation seemed to be everywhere. It seems like the worst thing left-aligned people say about the powerful anymore is that they’re hypocrites.
Last month, the new left-most boundary of acceptable criticism, First Look’s The Intercept, wrote about an in-house NSA advice column named “Ask Zelda.” Why was this “Dear Abby for spies” worth writing about? An NSA employee had written in to ask Zelda how they could set boundaries with an intrusive boss. It turns out NSA employees value their own privacy, even as they violate our privacy. We, the American people, charge the national security state—with the grave crime of hypocrisy!
Actually, no, I meant a different French phrase—no shit. To say that our elites and their spies, enforcers, and state apparatchiks see themselves as subject to different laws and standards as the rest of us should be so obvious as to be totally banal at this point. In fact, I remember reading a book about that years ago.
In addition to the accusation of hypocrisy being obvious, it’s also largely exculpatory. The accusation is embedded with the idea that there’s a high-minded ideal being betrayed. We need only to get the hypocrites to see the wisdom of their core beliefs, then get their actions to mirror these deeply held convictions. It’s the same idea at the heart of the hoary, vomit-inducing tall tale about how Obama just needs his liberal base to “make him” enact the progressive agenda that he really desires.
What seems more likely is that hypocrisy is a feature, not a bug, of the exercise of power. The state and our plutocratic class do what they want, and then they tell us whatever they want, regardless of that statement’s relationship to reality. Otherwise, why would we consent to being ruled by the venal mediocrities who are our elites, unless they made overtures towards democratic pluralism, transparency, and the common good?
Why the fixation on hypocrisy as the utmost crime, then? The tendency to situate our criticisms of the powerful in the realm of personality is everywhere, which makes me think it has something to do with the anemic nature of the American left and its lack of a vocabulary for criticizing power. If you won’t criticize capital or authority, then your lexicon is better equipped to criticize people than the system. And if you won’t call our elites criminals, murderers, or thieving oligarchs, then the worst you can call them is hypocrites.
If the focus on hypocrisy indicates a lack of deeper, systematic critiques, then it makes sense that First Look would spend any time at all covering an NSA advice column. After all, we’ve repeatedly been told that the intent is to “debate” and “reform” the National Security State, not to abolish it. Even if nothing else comes from these leaks, now that we’re aware that we live under a regime of inescapable surveillance, and this counts as the “informed consent” needed to legitimize the government’s spying. If we can just affect reforms of the bad-apple NSA and get rid of Jim Clapper, we can go back to the pre-9/11 good old days.
Some people aren’t satisfied to just see a tiny sliver of the Snowden trove, redacted and slowly parceled out by “responsible journalists in co-ordination with government stakeholders.” As plutocrats rob us of every last penny, and the state they’ve purchased marries its technologies for ubiquitous surveillance to its militarized police forces, some people think there’s an urgent need for more substantial criticisms of power.
Those people won’t be comforted to know that America’s première authorities of appropriate dissent consider the nonsense-sin of hypocrisy to be our elites’ worst crime. We’ve heard from the kindest, bravest man himself that Dianne Feinstein, longtime enabler of US government horrors, is guilty of hypocrisy—and it’s “equally if not more concerning” than the war crimes committed by America’s deadliest agency. Well, to those people, good news: they only think this because they are cowards. I’m told that’s what people who raise questions about the character of the Snowden leaks are, so it’s best that they borrow a page from the SCUM Manifesto and start every treacherous statement with the admission that “I am a coward, a lowly abject coward.”
After a few more news-cycles, once the Snowden Effect has cleared out the hypocrites from the State-Capital power nexus, we can have spy agencies that only target The Terrorists. Just think, drones that only murder the appropriate targets: people actively resisting American imperialism! What a future, living in an Orwellian dystopia where our rulers and those they’ve empowered to kill match their rhetoric to their action.
If people want more radical change than that envisioned by our left media gatekeepers, then we might wonder if we can’t leverage all this hypocrisy that they keep finding for some greater good. Unfortunately, the track record for leveraging hypocrisy for change is pretty abysmal. Once you surrender systemic critiques in favor of personality, personality becomes the linchpin of criticism from that point on. In 2007-8, the coalitions that comprised the anti-war movement decided to shift from opposing American imperialism to electing Barack Obama, a candidate who vowed to wind down a “dumb war” in order to ramp up other ones. A 2011 study of the Bush-era war movement found that from early-2007 to late-2008, anti-war agitation dropped by “an order of magnitude.”
Since personality drove the movement, when President Obama governed as a kinder, gentler imperialist, there was nothing but personality on which to criticize him. That’s why criticism of America’s war policies focuses on the sin of hypocrisy, rather than state murder. If you want to talk psychology, using state power to kill people is something Obama jokes about to his friends and brags about to his underlings, but criticism doesn’t even go this far. Most criticism among leftists and liberal media celebrities alike is that the President is a hypocrite, rather than the chief administrator of a murderous enterprise.
Whether the left is weak because of a focus on personalities or whether a failure to criticize capital and authority has produced an enfeebled left is a chicken/egg situation. Regardless, we find ourselves today trying to criticize the powerful largely without a vital vocabulary. The lack of left voices allowed an information-hoarding bully with a vaguely conservative-Constitutionalist/liberal political core to become the de facto savior of the left and the arbiter of appropriate dissent. Those who ask how this happened and whether we should be okay with it get smeared with the same shallow psychological speculation that’s become the lingua franca of leftish criticism.
Last week, I watched an excellent Czech-Slovak film called Velvet Terrorists. A documentary with dramatized elements, the film tells the story of three men arrested for terrorism charges during the Communist era. One of the men, Vladimír, is a cell of one, carrying on a quixotic campaign of blowing up corporate billboards. He’s auditioning young women to be his protégée, and his decision ultimately comes down to how they answer the question “what is the problem with society?” Two say “hypocrisy,” and all but one answer with some variant of it. He picks the teenager who responds, “neo-Nazis.”
To think hypocrisy is the cardinal sin committed by the powerful is to misunderstand power, and to drag our critiques into the realm of petty psychodrama. Walter Glass, who’s also written about the hypocrisy fixation, says “We can start by agreeing that money and influence are miracle cures for things like shame and self-doubt (otherwise how do we still have so many fucking rich people), so obsessing over the elites and their many vices falls far beneath anything that can be considered a strategy.” I don’t know what that strategy will look like; after all, “I am a coward, a lowly abject coward.” I do know that it flatters our rulers to think of them as merely hypocrites, and it distracts us from the deadly systems they’re managing.